CASPER, Wyo. — National conservation groups say Yellowstone National Park officials are trying to selectively remove regulations that ban wildlife disturbance by snowmobiles in the park.
But John Sacklin, chief of park planning at Yellowstone, denied any intent to weaken wildlife protections in the proposed winter use plan for the park.
The Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park winter use plan is now open for public comment until Oct. 14.
In their comments, the conservation groups say wildlife along snowmobile routes in Yellowstone would have a lower level of protection than wildlife anywhere else within the National Park Service System under the plan.
At present, federal regulations prohibit the disturbance of wildlife in any national park.
Conservation groups are concerned that the net effect of the language in the winter use plan is that wildlife will not be protected on current snowmobile routes in Yellowstone, Grand Teton and in the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway.
Carl Schneebeck, a public lands advocate of Bluewater Network, a San Francisco-based advocacy group, and Abigail Dillen, an Earthjustice attorney based in Bozeman, Mont., said the winter use plan's supplemental environmental impact statement acknowledges that snowmobile traffic along the designated routes will result in high to low levels of wildlife disturbance.
"What's remarkable to me is that Yellowstone now has a less protective standard of protection for wildlife than the rest of the National Park System," Dillen said.
Dillen contends that the Park Service "was less than forthcoming" and attempted to slide a major rule change past the American public.
"You can be sure that many conservation groups will have something to say about this," she said.
Yellowstone's Sacklin said he and other officials will look closely at the wording pointed out by Earthjustice. Sacklin said the intent was to apply the protections for wildlife to both the established routes and any new routes that might be proposed.
"That was our intent," Sacklin said.
He indicated that the proposed winter use rules can be adjusted to make the agency's intentions clearer.
"It is a proposed rule, not a final rule," he said. "By the nature of offering it for public comment, that also implies that we will make some changes. You hope you do a good job the first time, but we always expect that probably things aren't read as you intended. Public comment reveals that."
Sacklin said this controversy over the language of the proposed winter recreation rule is a good example of why current litigation is premature — simply because the rule is not final.
That won't happen until the final rule is published in the Federal Register on Dec. 16. The winter season officially opens Dec. 17.